| 10.5°C Dublin

Famous night Azzurri squeezed into Dalyer

Dangerous overcrowding for visit of world champs didn't spoil great game

Close

RAISING THE ROOF: Spectators in the terrace and on the roof at Dalymount Park watch as Ireland prepare to take a free-kick against Italy in February 1985. Photo: SPORTSFILE

RAISING THE ROOF: Spectators in the terrace and on the roof at Dalymount Park watch as Ireland prepare to take a free-kick against Italy in February 1985. Photo: SPORTSFILE

SPORTSFILE

RAISING THE ROOF: Spectators in the terrace and on the roof at Dalymount Park watch as Ireland prepare to take a free-kick against Italy in February 1985. Photo: SPORTSFILE

It was a dark February evening in 1985 and a young printer on Marrowbone Lane was anxiously watching the clock.

Paul Cumiskey, who would become a football referee and later spearhead Walking Football in Ireland, was anxious to get to the international in Dalymount Park between Ireland and Italy.

As he and his colleagues loaded a pallet of match programmes into the vehicle driven by PR consultant Frank Dunlop, who would later achieve a degree of dubious celebrity as a political fixer, Paul was ready to head to Phibsborough in time for the 7.30pm kick-off.

"Keep printing," instructed the executive client. "There are huge crowds of people on the streets. We need more programmes. When I drop these off, I'll be back for more."

As Paul recalls: "They had delayed printing until the last minute until they had the correct team line-up. There were still copies coming off the conveyor-belt at StyleArt Print at 6.30."

Only a small number of tickets had been printed, so the FAI had no idea how many might attend the match.

On the official programme, Italy were described as "Champions of the World" and the FAI PR machine had arranged a new sponsorship deal with the lager company Steiger, which meant the match had been heavily promoted in pubs.

What could possibly go wrong?

Admittedly, six months earlier just 5,000 had turned up at Dalymount for a friendly against Mexico.

And having printed 50,000 tickets for the friendly with the USSR in Lansdowne Road the previous September, the FAI were embarrassed when just 28,000 sold.

For the match against Italy, they printed stand tickets and a few thousand for the terraces.

With the match not being shown on television in Ireland, it was a serious miscalculation that could have had serious consequences.

Back in Marrowbone Lane, an anxious Cumiskey loaded up the final batch of programmes for Frank Dunlop and rushed across town believing he'd miss the kick-off.

"I belted over as quick as I could and locked my bike near the shopping centre," he recalls. "When I got to the ground I discovered the kick-off had been delayed and the gates were wide open so I was able to stride in without having to pay."

The crowds had been gathering in Phibsborough since before 6 o'clock.

The Italians arrived wearing tracksuits at 6.20pm. Although the visitors had been given the larger 'home' dressing room, the plan was to get back to the Shelbourne Hotel straight after the match.

As the crowds packed the streets and lanes leading to the turnstiles, the Gardaí realised there could be problems.

By dispensing with an all-ticket policy, the FAI had inadvertently created the perfect conditions for chaos to develop.

The slow process of having to deal in cash at the entrances resulted in thousands of people funnelling into narrow approaches all anxiously pushing forward to get in so as not miss any action.

The true extent of the possible nightmare scenario that could have developed didn't manifest itself until four years later with the horrific tragedy that unfolded at Hillsborough.

In 1985 Gardaí, realising that the FAI were totally unprepared for the surge of thousands of heaving supporters attempting to access the ground, discussed matters with officials and the match was delayed until 7.45pm in an attempt to calm the crowd and relieve the pressure.

With thousands more arriving, the Gardaí surveyed scenes of pandemonium with growing apprehension and instructed that the gates be opened to allow the crush of fans to overflow onto the side of the pitch.

As players warmed up, they were amazed to see hundreds of supporters on the sidelines and in the dugouts.

By kick-off the fans were also perched precariously on the roof.

While there are no official figures, it appeared that close on 50,000 people were rammed into a ground that could hold 35,000.

"How there wasn't a disaster that night is beyond me," said Frank Stapleton later.

It was an important friendly for Ireland.

Although Italy had failed to qualify for the previous year's Euros, they were reigning World Cup champions having beaten West Germany 3-1 in the final at the Bernabéu in Madrid.

They'd progressed from a group that contained Brazil and Argentina and many will swear that their 3-2 win against Brazil still ranks as one of the greatest football matches ever.

Of course, Irish football fans wanted to see an Italian side that was likely to feature many of the champions and maybe even the man who scored a hat-trick against Brazil, Paolo Rossi.

Ireland's World Cup '86 qualifying campaign had got off to a good start with a 1-0 home win against the Soviet Union.

While away defeats followed against Norway and Denmark, it was still possible to book a place for Mexico.

The Ireland team was managed by Eoin Hand who said: "This fixture against the world champions was precisely what we needed to keep our competitive edge."

An ill-timed tackle by Mark Lawrenson in the box on Alessandro Altobelli led to an early penalty which resulted in the bizarre sight of local supporters running to position themselves behind the net or along the goal-line to watch Juventus player Rossi score against Packie Bonner.

Lawrenson, who injured himself in the tackle, was replaced by Paul McGrath, a St Pat's player by then operating out of Old Trafford, who received his first Ireland cap that night.

Nine years later, McGrath would break the hearts of the Azzurri with a peerless display in the Giants Stadium in World Cup '94 but in Dalymount he was unable to stop Altobelli cutting inside after 18 minutes and putting a second goal past Bonner.

This was a fine Irish side that featured Inter Milan player Liam Brady, Jim Beglin (Liverpool), Mick McCarthy (Man City) and Chris Hughton (Spurs).

Coach Enzo Bearzot started a side with seven of the winning team that had played in the World Cup final.

Marco Tardelli, who would later be assistant to Giovanni Trapattoni when he managed Ireland, patrolled midfield and earned a yellow card on the night for deliberately handling a ball that was on its way to the feet of striker Stapleton.

Ireland fought back well in the second half.

When confronted by a blue wall, Stapleton laid a ball back to Gary Waddock who left footed a 20-yard strike that screamed past keeper Franco Tancredi.

Jubilant

In an unprecedented scene, as the jubilant QPR player celebrated he was joined on the pitch by more excited supporters than Ireland players.

Ronnie Whelan had a shot cleared off the line and Tancredi did well to keep out a sweet Brady free kick.

After the match, which ended 2-1, there was plenty of talk about the penalty chances denied Ireland.

What Italian television viewers, the only ones to get to see the match live, made of the chaotic crowd scenes is anyone's guess.

TV executives weren't too pleased when their pitch-side advertising for Italian companies was obscured by the overflow of Irish supporters.

Luckily they wouldn't have heard how one of the turnstiles had been targeted by opportunistic thieves who made off with a couple of grand, leaving behind an injured steward.

Thankfully, despite the overcrowding, tragedy was averted.

The most serious casualty on the night was Mark Lawrenson who ended up in the Mater Hospital with a self-inflicted broken collar bone.